Iraqi army launches offensive against al-Qaeda militants

Photo: Iraqi army launches offensive against al-Qaeda militants / Arab World

The Iraqi army has started a large-scale campaign to expel militants linked to al-Qaeda from an area in the volatile western province of Anbar, independent Iraqi broadcaster Alsumaria News reported Wednesday.

Tanks and helicopters were used in the onslaught targeting fighters of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)in the town of Jazeera, added the report, citing an unnamed police official.

"The insurgents barricade themselves near residents in the area. Around 40 families are caught in the crossfire between the army and the gunmen," added the official. Casualties on both sides were not immediately known, dpa reported.

The ISIL militants were apparently taking advantage of tensions in Anbar after the Shia-led government's troops cleared out a Sunni protest camp in the capital city Ramadi last week.

The militants have reportedly taken control of large swathes in Anbar, including Fallujah, the province's most populous city.

In December, the Iraqi military launched an operation in Anbar after 16 military personnel, including a senior commander, were killed in an attack by militants.

Clashes in Anbar have raised the prospect of a return to the sectarian violence that pushed Iraq to the brink of civil war in 2006 and 2007.

According to UN estimates, 8,868 people were killed in 2013, the highest annual death toll in Iraq in five years.

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